Northwestern’s follow-up to last year’s feel-good campaign hasn’t been nearly as magical so far.
Instead of building on the momentum from making their first NCAA tournament appearance in program history last March, the Wildcats have unexpectedly stumbled out of the starting blocks this season with three early losses.
The latest setback came by a single point at Georgia Tech on Tuesday night in a game Northwestern surely feels it should have won. The Wildcats held the Yellow Jackets without a field goal for eight minutes to transform a 10-point second-half deficit into a one-point lead with eight seconds left in the game.
When Northwestern sent multiple defenders at Georgia Tech point guard Jose Alvarado as he zoomed up court, the standout freshman wisely dished the ball to senior Tadric Jackson on the left wing. Jackson took advantage of a miscommunication between Northwestern’s Vic Law and Aaron Falzon, driving straight to the basket for a buzzer-beating layup that gave the Yellow Jackets a 52-51 victory.
Tadric Jackson at the buzzer! Georgia Tech knocks off Northwestern. pic.twitter.com/2hjp4QCtZ7
That Northwestern (4-3) has already suffered a trio of early losses is a surprise considering the high expectations for the Wildcats this season. Northwestern was a fixture in preseason Top 25 polls thanks to the return of its four leading scorers from a team that won an first-round NCAA tournament game against Vanderbilt last March and pushed eventual national runner-up Gonzaga until the final minutes two days later.
A four-point home loss to Creighton on Nov. 15 wasn’t unforgivable on its own. The Bluejays should be an upper-echelon Big East team this year.
An 85-49 drubbing against Texas Tech on a neutral floor was a bit more disconcerting. The Red Raiders have NCAA tournament potential but they’re certainly not world beaters.
Tuesday’s road loss at Georgia Tech cements that Northwestern has some real issues. The Yellow Jackets return some key pieces from last year’s NIT team, but they’re still without suspended guard Josh Okogie, one of their two top players.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what is wrong with Northwestern because the Wildcats’ problems have differed from game to game. They couldn’t string together stops against high-powered Creighton, they didn’t do much of anything right against Texas Tech and it was their offense that let them down at Georgia Tech.
Standout point guard Bryant McIntosh scored a team-high 18 points and spearheaded the comeback, but he didn’t have enough help. Typically high-scoring guard Scottie Lindsey went 0-for-8 from the field. Falzon also struggled, misfiring on all seven 3-pointers he attempted.
In spite of that, Northwestern dug in defensively and put itself in position to win, a good sign since defense was the hallmark of last year’s success. But all that was undone when the Wildcats couldn’t get the stop they needed with the game on the line in the final seconds.
It won’t get any easier for Northwestern with Big Ten play starting early this season. Up next is a home game against Illinois that looks vitally important considering a road trip to league title contender Purdue follows after that.
Before the season started, there was every reason to believe Northwestern could return to the NCAA tournament and perhaps do some more damage there.
All that is still possible, but the Wildcats have definitely dug themselves an early hole.
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